Monday, September 23, 2019

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Sony WF-1000XM3 UK Review: Excellent set of buds

Sony’s true wireless WF-1000XM3 earbuds offer both noise cancelling and top-end sound quality while undercutting premium rivals on price.

The replacement for the WF-1000X, which were some of the first noise cancelling true wireless earbuds available, the new “M3” portion of the model number denotes the company’s third generation of active noise cancelling technology and the QN1e chip, which is rivalled only by Bose.

Let’s be clear, this is the top end of the market; at £220 they will be out of the range of many buyers, although there are rivals costing more than £300.

The WF-1000XM3 pack more technology in them than your standard true wireless earbuds, and are pretty big as a result. They’re attractive and more balanced in the ear than some sets, but have a resemblance to the old-school Bluetooth headsets made popular by taxi drivers everywhere; if you were looking for a set of discreet earbuds, these are not for you.

Sony WF-1000XM3 review

The case top flips open to reveal the earbuds held in by magnets, each with a canal bud-style tip to insert into your ear.

The trunk of the earbuds sticks quite far out of your ear, with the oval-shaped body projected forwards towards your mouth. There’s a circular touchpad on each bud for controls – single, double and triple taps can take care of playback, change the noise reduction mode or activate Google Assistant. Which side does what can be configured in an Android or iOS app.

Tapping and holding the left bud activates ambient listening mode, reducing the volume and noise reduction, which is useful for catching public transport announcements. Talking to people using ambient mode is possible too, but I wouldn’t recommend it because people will think you’re being incredibly rude.

Taking out one of the buds pauses the music. Popping it back in starts it again. All the controls work very well, but they’re missing the big one: volume. You’ve got to dig out your phone to change the volume, which is a real shame.

Case and fit

Sony WF-1000XM3 review
The top of the charging case is coloured rose gold or copper.

The attractive flip-top charging case is too big to really pocket, which means it’ll have to go in a bag. It charges in 3.5 hours via USB-C and will charge the earbuds three times. A 10-minute stay in the case charges the earbuds for about 90 minutes of playback time, while a full charge takes 90 minutes.

You’ll get between five and six hours of constant playback with noise cancelling on, or eight with it off, for a total of 22 to 32 hours, using the case.

Sony ditched the ear hook from its previous true wireless earbuds in favour of a new “high-friction rubber surface” on the outer part that enters your ear.

With the correct earbud tip, chosen from the seven pairs included, the fit is pretty secure, despite the size and 8.5g weight, which is on the heavy side for wireless earbuds. I would not recommend them for running, though – they are not water resistant. Generally, they are fairly comfortable in the ear, but I found if I didn’t quite get the right orientation the outer rubber surface caused pain in the fleshy bits of my ear after about 45 minutes.

Noise cancelling and sound

Sony WF-1000XM3 review
The outer surface has a microphone hole next to a circular touchpad for controlling music or switching noise cancelling modes.

The Sony WF-1000XM3 are the most effective in-ear noise cancelling earphones I have tried, including those with wires and large batteries. Noise across the board is effectively reduced, including train noise, road noise and engine rumble, meaning you can listen to your music, and hear it clearly, at lower volumes.

The earbuds are heavily affected by wind noise, however, which appears to be a function of their size and how much they stick out of your ears. The wind noise reduction setting appears to do very little.

An ambient sound mode pipes noise in from the outside world, which is good for awareness. There’s an adaptive sound mode too that adjusts the noise cancelling depending on what you’re doing. I found simply leaving the noise cancelling set to maximum to be best.

The best thing about the WF-1000XM3 is how they sound. We’re not short of great-sounding, expensive, true wireless earbuds. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless were the best, but no longer. Sony’s finally cracked it on sound.

The WF-1000XM3 produce the sort of sparkling audio that allows you to hear new things in longtime favourite tracks. With great energy and clarity, crisp highs, balanced treble and punchy bass, the earbuds sound brilliant out of the box. Sony’s DSEE HX system also works well at bringing life back to highly compressed tracks, but you can also tweak the equaliser manually or use one of the many presets, such as the classic Bass Boost.

Connectivity

Sony WF-1000XM3 review
A sensor in the earbuds detects the proximity of your ear to tell when you’re wearing them.

The new earbuds only support SBC and AAC Bluetooth audio formats, not the higher-quality aptX or Sony’s own LDAC. But they do support Bluetooth 5.0, with each bud making a connection directly to the phone rather than piggybacking off one another. The result is a rock-solid connection, even in challenging conditions, and reduced latency. Even with the oft-problematic YouTube app, I couldn’t spot any lip-sync issues where the sound and the video appear out of time, and only mild lag with games.

You can only have one device connected at a time, and switching between them requires manually disconnecting from one device before connecting to the other, which is a bit of a pain.

Observations

  • The voice announcements (telling you what you’ve just changed) delay any mode changes until the full announcement has finished, which can be tediously slow. Turning off voice announcements solved the problem.

  • Google Assistant is built in, for reading notifications and more advanced functions, or you can simply use the standard Google Assistant or Siri functions on your phone.

  • An NFC spot on the case provides one-tap pairing.

  • It’s difficult to tell how much charge is left in the case.

  • Call quality was great, with minimal background noise, but became muffled and distant in louder environments.

Price

The Sony WF-1000XM3 cost £219 and are available in black or silver.

Verdict

Sony’s hit a home run with the WF-1000XM3. Terrible name, excellent set of earbuds. Packing genuinely impressive noise cancelling technology, brilliant sound, rock-solid connectivity and even long battery life into wireless earbuds is something of an achievement.

All that technology makes the earbuds massive, which causes people to stare at you occasionally – if you want something discreet, these are not it. It can be difficult to get the right fit too, and the case, while attractive, is too large to comfortably fit in a pocket. They also lack a volume control on the earbuds, which is mildly annoying.

While a price of £220 doesn’t sound cheap, the WF-1000XM3 actually undercut the best-sounding competition by £60-80!

They’re not for everyone, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 are the best-sounding, most feature-packed true wireless earbuds you can buy right now.

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